12 Winters Blog

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”


“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.

20170220_102148

This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: his first piece of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”

gass-at-desk

Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”

william-and-mary-gass

Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

—-.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 2007.  Print.

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

William H. Gass at 90: Passages of Time

Posted in September 2014 by Ted Morrissey on September 28, 2014

I’ve just returned from Washington University in St. Louis where I attended “Passages of Time: A literary event marking the 90th birthday of celebrated author William H. Gass.” The reading and reception were held in Umrath Lounge from 4 to 6 p.m. After welcoming and introductory remarks by Jeffrey Trzeciak, University Librarian, and Dr. Gerhild Williams, German professor and vice provost, Gass read from several of his works for about 40 minutes.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

Gass, or “The Master,” as I call him, arrived via wheelchair and gave his reading from a chair, but while his mobility was impaired, he appeared sharp of mind and his voice was clear and  robust–not remarkably different from other readings of his that I attended in 2008 (AWP Conference in Chicago) and 2013 (Left Bank Books in St. Louis). For the most part, Gass read from his works in published chronological order, beginning with passages from the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966), followed by selections from “Order of Insects” (in 1969’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), The Tunnel (1995), “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata), Middle C (2013), and concluding with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” (in Reading Rilke, 1999).

Between selections, Gass spoke briefly about each piece, often humorously. Upon finishing his reading, the large gathering gave the author an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Gass said, “Rilke is good.”

Several of Gass’s books have been re-released and were available at the reading and reception in autographed editions. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country had not arrived in time for the event. Gass has supposedly been working on a new story collection as well as a new collection of novellas, a form that he especially likes.  I hope to hear the author reading from those books at his 100th birthday celebration.

I recommend the following links to learn more about The Master:

Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (the William H. Gass Papers and International Writers Center)

“William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence” (digitized manuscripts, photographs, readings and more)

And keep up to date on Gass events and happenings at ReadingGass.org

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass's reading.

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass’s reading. (Photo by my wife, Melissa)

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 3, 2013

The following paper — “The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:  The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid'” — was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, Feb. 23, as part of the panel “Barthelme & Gass:  Postmodern Fiction,” chaired by Hoang Thi Hue, Hue University, Vietnam.  The other presenters on the panel were Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior, whose paper was “Image and Textual Play:  Adventures in Donald Barthelme’s Alternative and Liminal Narratives”; and Jonathan Imber Shaw, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, whose paper was “Executive Function in Donald Barthelme’s Early Fiction.”

The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Though written in 1951 and therefore constituting William H. Gass’s first work of fiction, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” did not appear in print until a full decade later in John Gardner’s short-lived journal MSS.  This paper is based specifically on the version of the novella that appeared in Gass’s seminal collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country in 1968.  The title story of that collection and Gass’s long, dense novel The Tunnel (which appeared in 1995) have received the lion’s share of critical attention over the decades, while discussion of “The Pedersen Kid” has been meager to put it mildly.  Some writers have noted the connection between Gass’s well-known miserable childhood—made miserable by Gass’s alcoholic mother and hateful bigot of a father—and the fact that the novella’s first-person protagonist is leading his own miserable life thanks mainly to his abusive and alcoholic “Pa”; but they have failed to go much beyond that obvious surface connection.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest that understanding the trauma of alcohol abuse within the context of a family is key to more fully understanding the enigmatic novella, whose final section in particular has left both casual readers and critics scratching their heads in puzzlement for more than forty years.  In fact, Arthur M. Saltzman said that attempting to gain a clear view of the plot is “self-defeating” because “Gass steers us into cul-de-sacs, lets loose ends dangle, and plunges without warning into subjective distortions,” thereby leaving the two most suspenseful narrative questions unresolved and unrelieved (60).

Set in mid twentieth-century North Dakota, at the conclusion of a terrible blizzard, the novella begins with the farmhand Big Hans finding the boy from the neighboring Pedersen farm in the yard unconscious and nearly frozen to death as he apparently walked there through the previous night’s storm.  Later, partially revived, the boy tells Big Hans (allegedly) that an intruder broke into their house and forced his parents into the frigid root-cellar, but somehow the boy escaped and managed to make it on foot all the way to the Segren farm in spite of the blizzard.  Most of the novella centers around the three males of the Segren family—Big Hans, Pa Segren, and the young narrator (12 or 13?), Jorge Segren—making their way to the Pedersen farm through the frozen landscape to see if the boy’s story is true, though the act is more about Pa’s punishing Hans and Jorge than trying to do a neighbor a good turn; in fact, Pa seems to hate Pedersen even more than he hates everyone else around him, referring to him as a “cock,” a “bastard,” a “fool,” and a “shit”; and blaming Pedersen for every bad turn of events, including the previous summer’s grasshopper infestation and even the previous day’s blizzard.

At the root of Pa’s punishment, in addition to his natural mean-spiritedness, is the fact that some of his precious whiskey was found in what he thought was a secure hiding place and used to resuscitate the Pedersen kid without Pa’s permission.  That seems to be the reason he keeps driving them forward, toward the Pedersen farm and its possible danger, in a horse-drawn wagon that can barely make it through the all but impassable roads and fields.  The motivation is freshened part way there, when they are all so miserable with cold they are thinking of turning back, Pa’s whiskey bottle falls out of the wagon and is eventually broken by a wagon wheel.  Even though he had nothing to do with breaking the bottle, Hans apologizes but to no avail:  “Pa squinted at the snow [. . . and] drove” (44).

There have been several theories put forward to explain the novella, which at first suggests a distinct and straightforward narrative arc—namely answering the questions “Did an intruder break into the Pedersen house?” and “Are the Pedersens alive or dead?”—but which disintegrates by the end into ambiguity and downright confusion.  Saltzman says it well:  “Relentlessly convoluted in design, as though the all-compassing blizzard in the story were rendering all perception hesitant and indistinct, ‘The Pedersen Kid’ is replete with allegorical options for the discerning reader and is equally accommodating to Freudian, Christian, and heraldic archetypes” (59).  Also well put, Patricia Kane writes, “One can locate several points in the story at which Jorge may have hallucinated the rest.  Such alternatives provide semi-rational explanations, but the story remains enigmatic and fails to lend itself to neat exegesis” (90).

In a moment, I will put forward a theory based on the findings of professionals who work with families coping with the trauma of alcohol abuse—families which must have resembled Gass’s own growing up—and it is a theory that can account for some of the novella’s eccentricities, especially its seemingly unresolved resolution.  First, though, it is worth looking at how the Segren family exhibits many of the characteristics of families traumatized by alcohol abuse, which adds credence to my use of the substance-abuse theory to examine this work of literary art.  Even though alcohol abuse no doubt began almost as soon as the process of fermentation was discovered, culture by culture, seeing it as a “family disease” has been a common practice for only the last twenty to thirty years.  In 1985, Stephanie Brown defined alcohol addiction as a family disease “with all family members suffering the consequences of one member’s alcoholism and all seen to play a role in maintaining the destructive interactional patterns that result from alcoholism” (qtd. in Brooks and Rice 92).  Indeed, these destructive interactional patterns could easily account for Gass’s “miserable and damaging” childhood, as characterized by H. L. Hix, who quotes Gass as saying, “For a long time I was simply emotionally unable to handle my parents’ illnesses. [. . .] I just fled. [. . .] All along one principal motivation behind my writing has been to be other than the person I am.  To cancel the consequences of the past” (2).

G. Harold Smith and his colleagues discuss various types of family structures that form around alcoholic parents, and we can see aspects of these structures in the Segren family.  The “enmeshed family,” for example, seems especially applicable as it is extremely isolated and wants little to do with outsiders:   “Within these highly self-involved families, children’s needs may be ignored because the family’s attention is focused on the parent who is abusing substances” (Smith et al. 47).  The Segren family, of course, is isolated by the very fact they live on a farm in North Dakota, but Pa’s attitude toward the Pedersens suggests that the two families have been kept apart, thus exacerbating the geography’s tendency toward isolation.  In spite of the tragic nature of the occurrence (the Pedersen kid nearly died in the blizzard and may die yet), the mother, Hed Segren, seems excited at the possibility of having company, wanting to put out coffee and fresh biscuits with elderberry jelly for Mr. Pedersen and his eldest son when they come to collect the kid.  Pa, of course, ridicules her for her intentions.

However, an even more tragic trait of the enmeshed family is the alcoholic’s tendency toward violence.  Smith and his colleagues write, “Often that parent’s behavior has to be monitored carefully to avoid negative consequences.  For example, much family effort may be expended to avoid provoking a violent reaction from a parent who is intoxicated” (47).  Clearly, all three members of Pa Segren’s household are afraid of him, and several instances of his cruel and violent nature are recounted at various points in the story, including references to his emptying a chamber-pot filled with diarrhea on Hans’s head and his destroying Jorge’s favorite picture book and dropping the pieces of torn paper in the privy.  In our very first view of Pa in the novella, Jorge is struck in the neck for waking his father to inquire where there is some whiskey with which to try to revive the nearly frozen Pedersen kid.  And poor Hed Segren is as skittish and defeated as an abused wife can be; she may even have turned to drinking, too, to cope with her miserable existence.

Because of the enmeshed family’s preoccupation with the alcohol abuser, children are often neglected and fall prey to all sorts of deprivations and depravations.  Smith and his colleagues report that sexual abuse is “common” in households where substances are abused by one or both parents (48).  In “The Pedersen Kid,” sexual abuse is not obvious, but Big Hans’s relationship with Jorge is questionable and even highly suspicious at times, showing him pornographic magazines, telling him stories about Japanese prostitutes, and even measuring the length of Jorge’s penis.  As Ripatrazone puts it, “Jorge stops short of claiming physical abuse, but the actions are grossly inappropriate, perhaps the reason why ‘pa took a dislike to Hans.’”  However, Gass may imply that Jorge—our omnisciently very limited, first-person narrator—is repressing more than he is telling as he seems fixated on penises:  the Pedersen kid’s, his father’s, his own; and he imagines the intruder’s assault on his mother as more of a sexual assault as the stranger “wav[es his gun barrel] up and down in front of ma’s face real slow and quiet” (19).

There isn’t time to go further into detail here, but there are numerous other elements of the novella that seem to reflect the experiences of someone growing up in a household traumatically affected by alcohol abuse.  For example, the creation of the narrative about the Pedersen family’s intruder, which is pulled together from mere scraps of details, may suggest a family’s inclination to invent an alternate narrative about their traumatized existence to fit into their community more easily.  Also, there are several spaces brought up in the story that have a duality about them, usually coldness versus warmth, which may suggest the duality of an alcoholic’s home that is supposed to provide familial warmth and comfort (and may even do so at times), but that also breeds hostility, mistrust, and often emotional and physical abuse.

Throughout my paper I refer to the trauma of alcohol abuse, but trauma is a subjective term.  At what point, in other words, does a really terrible situation become a genuinely traumatic one?  From the Greek for “wound,” trauma originally meant a physical wound.  Over time, and especially with the horrors of the First World War, our sense of trauma was extended to include a wound of the mind or psyche as well.  Even more recently, the definition of trauma has been expanded to include being subjected to an oppressive and reoccurring situation, like being married to an abusive or potentially abusive spouse, who may have never actually become violent, but whose constant threat of violence creates a traumatic environment.  Certainly being a member of a family with a parent who abuses alcohol or other substances constitutes a traumatic situation, and in “The Pedersen Kid” William Gass gives us one of the most poignantly accurate extended metaphors of trauma in American literature:

It’s more than a make-up; it’s more than a dream.  It’s like something you see once and it hits you so hard you never forget it even if you want to; lies, dreams, pass—this has you; it’s like something that sticks to you like burrs, burrs you try to brush off while you’re doing something else, but they never brush off, they just roll a little, and the first thing you know you ain’t doing what you set out to, you’re just trying to get them burrs off.         I know.      I got things stuck to me like that.  Everybody has.        Pretty soon you get tired of trying to pick them off. (17)

This passage illustrates the intrusive and haunting nature of trauma, its tenaciousness, its ability to disrupt your concentration, and ultimately your life—and the fact that from Hans’s perspective, everyone is traumatized, which makes sense since the novella implies that Hans is a veteran of the First World War. Moreover, this passage suggests that Pa’s drinking has, indeed, traumatized the Segren family, and perhaps especially Jorge, who has grown up with his father’s capricious personality due to the whiskey that is ubiquitous in the novella, from nearly the first page to the last.

Now for that substance-abuse theory that seems to help us to understand “The Pedersen Kid,” especially the ambiguities of its final section.

In 1979, Sharon Wegscheider identified four roles that are often played by children of alcoholics, and it seems that Jorge has assumed each of these roles at some point in “The Pedersen Kid,” with the final one casting light on the novella’s enigmatic ending.  The roles identified by Wegscheider are family hero, scapegoat, lost child, and mascot (Ackerman 52-53).  The family hero “displays behaviors that are extremely mature” (53), and this role is manifested when Jorge is given the responsibility of making sure the Pedersen kid is still alive before they begin their journey to the Pedersen farm, and especially when Jorge is given Hans’s .45-caliber pistol to load, which he then carries in his belt, even though “the gun felt like a chunk of ice against [his] belly and the barrel dug” (34).  Because of the adventure they are about to embark on, Jorge thinks, “It was like I was setting out to do something special and big—like a knight setting out—worth remembering” (32-33).  Later, Jorge wants a drink of Pa’s whiskey to warm him, claiming that he has drunk whiskey before; but the request only provokes his father’s sarcasm:  “Ain’t you growed up—a man—since yesterday!” (38).  In a truly heroic vein, Jorge dreams about confronting the Pedersens’ intruder, wrestling him to the ground and “beating the stocking cap off his head with the barrel of the gun” (33).

An only child, like Gass, Jorge also embodies the family scapegoat, who is often the target of “frustrations and confusions” and as a result may “outwardly [display …] negative behavior” (Ackerman 53).  Jorge is often ridiculed by both Pa and Hans; examples are copious in the novella.  In the scene mentioned earlier, when the whiskey bottle falls from the wagon, Jorge is forced to search for the bottle in the snow in spite of his being painfully cold already.  Frustrated at Jorge’s not finding the bottle, Pa calls him a “smart-talking snot” and threatens to hold him down under the snow until he drowns (37).  Meanwhile, Jorge’s negative behaviors are varied, and perhaps his most negative behavior comes in the hallucinatory final section and may or may not happen.  An example in the beginning of the story, though, is Jorge’s resentment of the attention being paid to the half-frozen Pedersen kid, especially by his mother.  Jorge imagines the boy is actually dead and not just near death, consequently dropping him so that his head hits the kitchen table hard (10).  In the final section of the novella, however, it seems that Pa is shot dead just outside the Pedersen house.  It may have been the intruder who shot Pa, or it may have been Jorge paying Pa back for years of cruelty and abuse.  Patricia Kane seems to learn toward the latter interpretation, thinking that Jorge has become mad by the end of the novella (90); while Nick Ripatrzone, writing in The Quarterly Conversation, believes that Jorge only wishes his father dead and does not actually shoot him.

Jorge also resembles the lost child, who suffers “the most role inconsistency” in the family of an alcoholic (Ackerman 53).  At times, Jorge tries to shield his mother from Pa’s abuse, but she also scolds Hans for “pester[ing] the boy” (19)—so when it comes to his mother, he is both a mature protector and a child who needs protection.  Even still, he imagines his mother coming to harm, and her fantasized death completes his sense of freedom from his oppressively abusive family.  But it is via metaphor that we can see Jorge’s lost child status most clearly.  In the beginning of the novella, it is, quite literally, the Pedersen kid who is lost.  In fact, the Segrens entertain the idea that the kid merely wandered off in the blizzard of his own accord, and the Pedersens will come looking for him now that the blizzard has stopped.  By the end, however, Jorge, now occupying the Pedersen farmhouse by himself, believes that he and the Pedersen kid have “been exchanged, and we were both in our new lands” (73).  And by the very end, Jorge and the Pedersen kid are more than exchanged; it is as if they are living parallel lives in their new lands.  Thus, Jorge has in essence become the novella’s original lost boy.

It is also via this exchange that we can see Jorge as the mascot, the child who “may be overly protected from the family problems” (Ackerman 53).  After Pa has been killed, Jorge takes refuge in the Pedersens’ root-cellar, waiting to be killed himself by the intruder (assuming the version of the story that there is an intruder who has killed the Pedersens and now Pa too).  After what seems a long time, the intruder stops waiting for Jorge and leaves the Pedersen house with a slam of the front door (66).  So, from this perspective, both Jorge and the Pedersen kid have been spared by the intruder, and in fact Jorge has been protected in a sense because the source of his misery—his alcoholic father—has been permanently removed from his life.

Throughout the novella, the intruder is a vague but ominous figure, with only a handful of descriptors attached to him which are repeated again and again (the black stocking cap, the yellow gloves, the green mackinaw, the gun), just as the whiskey is an object known chiefly by its fecal color, its omnipresence, and its desirability as all the Segrens (even the mother) seem to thirst for it, or at least for the power it lends tyrannical Pa.  Thus in my reading of “The Pedersen Kid” the true intruder, the true menace is the whiskey-induced alcoholism.  We note that it is en route to the Pedersen farm that whiskey, as an object, disappears from the narrative as Horse Simon shatters Pa’s bottle, which had fallen from the wagon, into the snow.  Its destruction propels Pa toward his own demise, empowering or at least enabling Jorge to overcome him in the end.  The intruder (whiskey) and his minion (Pa) destroyed, Jorge is overjoyed at the end of the novella; he is “burning up, inside and out with joy,” and joy is, in fact, the novella’s final word (79).

In addition to Wegscheider’s four roles, Norman Garmezy also coined the category of invulnerables:  “These are the children, that despite all the family problems, have not only survived, but also have grown into healthy adults” (Ackerman 53).  Garmezy estimated that about ten percent of children in homes with an alcoholic parent prove to be invulnerable.  It seems that perhaps Gass himself fits this category in that he managed to take his miserable childhood and create from it an illustrious writing and teaching career.  What will almost certainly be his last work of fiction and perhaps his last book-length publication, period, the novel Middle C, will be released March 12, and no doubt it will draw on many of the same images and themes his creative genius has tapped into for more than half a century.  I preordered the book several months ago and rest assured that I will be watching my mailbox hawkishly come the 12th.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Robert J.  Children of Alcoholics:  A Guidebook for Educators, Therapists, and Parents.  2nd ed.  Holmes Beach, FL:  Learning Publications, 1983.  Print.

Brooks, Carolyn Seval, and Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice.  Families in Recovery:  Coming Full Circle.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul H. Brookes, 1997.  Print.

Gass, William H.  “The Pedersen Kid.”  1961.  In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories.  Boston, MA:  Nonpareil, 1981.  Print.  1-79.

Hix, H. L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Kane, Patricia.  “The Sun Burned on the Snow:  Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  Critique 14.2 (1972):  89-96.  Print.

Ripatrazone, Nick.  “Let Me Make a Snowman:  John Gardner, William Gass, and ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  The Quarterly Conversation.  Web.  15 Feb. 2013.

Saltzman, Arthur M.  The Fiction of William Gass:  The Consolation of Language.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois UP, 1986.  Print.

Smith, G. Harold, et al.  Children, Families, and Substance Abuse:  Challenges for Changing Educational and Social Outcomes.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul. H. Brookes, 1995.  Print.

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